The designated hitter is being talked about as something that could become permanent in baseball. Instead of just an American League position, it would become a position for every team in baseball. While that isn’t a radical idea, fans of National league teams are mixed in their reaction to it. Even though the idea of any rule being used only by half the teams seems ridiculous, many don’t want to see the DH added to the National League.
The American League included the DH in 1973 as a way to increase runs to help sell the sport to the casual fan. Five years earlier, so few runs were scored in baseball’s “year of the pitcher” that the idea of a DH gained momentum.
At the time, the National and American Leagues were separate leagues with different presidents, and only the AL decided to add the designated hitter to their games. In the forty years since the inclusion of the DH, we have seen Frank Thomas enshrined in the Hall of Fame having been primarily a DH. Others, such as Edgar Martinez and David Ortiz, are certainly worthy of the Hall of Fame. However, when you look at the numbers, there haven’t been too many great designated hitters over the years.
Frank Thomas, Edgar Martinez, David Ortiz, Harold Baines, Hal McRae, Don Baylor & Travis Hafner are by far the best primary DH’s of all-time
— Candlestick Will (@CandlestickWill) January 19, 2016
As I mentioned on Twitter yesterday, when you look at Wins Above Replacement, these are really the only designated hitters that have been successful as a primary DH. Thomas (73.7), Martinez (68.3), Ortiz (50.4), Harold Baines (38.5), Hal McRae (27.7), Don Baylor (26), and Travis Hafner (24.8) are the only primary designated hitters with a career WAR above 17 since 1973. Several other players, such as Paul Molitor, Chili Davis, Rafael Palmeiro, and others, have extended their careers because of the DH. Every single player mentioned has retired already, except for Ortiz, who recently announced this will be his last season.
So maybe we should be getting rid of the DH altogether instead of talking about it being added to the National League. Not only are there few excellent designated hitters, but there are also a small number of excellent hitting pitchers. I tweeted yesterday the results when you compare the best hitting pitchers in baseball since 1973 against the best designated hitters who spent at least 50 percent of their career as a DH:
SPs M. Hampton (8.2) T. Glavine (7.5) C. Zambrano (6.3) L. Hernandez (5.8) & D. Robinson (5.2) have Career WARs > all but 16 career DHs.
— Candlestick Will (@CandlestickWill) January 19, 2016
Mike Hampton, Tom Glavine, Carlos Zambrano, Livan Hernandez, and Don Robinson are some of the best hitting pitchers in the game since 1973 when the DH was introduced. Only 16 hitters who spent half their career or more as a designated hitter ended up with a career WAR above 5.2.
Madison Bumgarner has hit 11 career home runs, including five in 2015 alone. He has a career WAR of 3.0 as a hitter, hitting every fifth day. His WAR of 1.1 last year as a hitter would have made him the seventh-best DH in baseball, behind Prince Fielder at 1.9 and ahead of Evan Gattis at 0.5. Bumgarner also had a higher slugging percentage (.468) than both Fielder and Gattis, who each had a .463 SLG. Again, maybe we should be looking to get rid of the DH instead of expanding it.
The two biggest reasons for the designated hitter are to generate offense and to help hitters stay in the league longer. Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe wrote in a piece on Sunday that one suggestion that could help both leagues is expanding Major league rosters to 28 instead of 25. There could still be 25 active on game day, but the three inactive players could be three starting pitchers who won’t pitch that day.
— Nick Cafardo (@nickcafardo) January 17, 2016
The added three roster spots could be for a third catcher, extra pinch hitters, an extra pinch runner, power bat, left-handed hitter, a long man, or bullpen arms. There are any number of ways a team can go to extend their roster. Most of the 90 new roster spots in baseball would likely go to Triple-A players on a team’s 40-man roster who deserve a shot in the big leagues but don’t have a spot to start every day or pitch every few days. It would be most beneficial in an extra-inning game that would allow for teams to make more double switches, pinch hit with better hitters, and avoid using pitchers to pinch run or pinch hit.
It could also be a way to avoid having to put a player on the disabled list for a short-term injury. Many teams go into a baseball game with a 25-man active roster, but can’t use two or three players because of different injuries. This would allow teams to deactivate them for a few days instead of a 15-day DL stint and lose them for two weeks.
Ultimately, this could be a better idea than adding the DH. With 90 extra roster spots, players who are good hitters, but limited in the field, would find many more available big league jobs. Players such as Marlon Byrd, Pedro Alvarez and Jonny Gomes might be more likely to be signed if teams had extra room on their bench. Instead of making every National League team have to find a designated hitter to take 500 at-bats a season, they can sign Byrd and have an extra hitter for key late-inning situations when you don’t want a relief pitcher batting.
Teams have found creative places to hide players who aren’t great fielders, whether it forces them to platoon them, take them out late in games for a defensive replacement, or have them play first base or left field with a strong second baseman or center fielder alongside to help cover more ground. No matter what a team does, there is a place in baseball for guys who can hit. There always will be. However, adding 15 more starters in the National League who never have to play in the field isn’t necessary. Especially when it would mean no more Bumgarner at-bats.